What is an Acceptable Ordination?

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by R. Gil Student

I. Five Types of Rabbinic Ordination

Rabbinic ordination serves to certify someone as a rabbi qualified to serve the community formally as a rabbi. In the past, we have discussed different theories of the significance of ordination today, and the practical implications of the different theories. I would like to discuss now the relatively recent history of a new level of ordination.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 5a) lists three types or levels of ordination: yoreh yoreh (permission to rule on ritual matters), yadin yadin (permission to serve as rabbinic judges), yatir yatir (permission to decide on blemishes in animals). The last no longer exists because there is no practical reason to rule on animal blemishes. Yoreh yoreh and yadin yadin are regularly given to qualified individuals, often together.

We are not entirely sure when but probably in the late fourteenth century, in the wake of the Black Plague, a new form of ordination was established. Some attribute it to Rav Meir Ha-Levi of Vienna (d. 1406) and some to earlier authorities. Due to the communal disruption in Germany, all sorts of people claimed to be qualified to serve as rabbis. To resolve the matter, the leading rabbis created a title “Moreinu” that only they could issue and only someone with that title could serve as a rabbi. [1]See Prof. Simcha Assaf, Be-Ohalei Ya’akov, p. 28ff; Prof. Mordechai Breuer, “Ha-Semikhah Ha-Ashkenazis” in Tziyon, no. 33, pp. 16-18

In nineteenth century Germany, a fifth type of ordination emerged, certifying the holder as qualified to serve a rabbi and leader (rav u-manhig). The earliest I have seen this type of ordination is at the school commonly known as Hildesheimer’s Institute in Berlin. The school generally gave a rav u-manhig to its graduates who went on to serve as rabbis. Only the exceptional graduates would receive a yoreh yoreh ordination.[2]Seridei Esh (Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1969), vol. 4 p. 133. Generally speaking, rav u-manhig implies lower qualifications than the other types of ordinations because it does not state that the rabbi is qualified to issue halakhic rulings. However, in many communities a rabbi does not need to be able to rule on halakhic matters. Where there is a need to send rabbis into the field who can positively impact the community, a rav u-manhig ordination suffices.

II. Who Can be Considered a Rabbi?

In mid-twentieth century America, many yeshivos almost exclusively gave only a rav u-manhig ordination. In the 1940’s, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA)’s Semicha Standards Committee began investigating what level of ordination qualifies for membership in the organization. On the one hand, membership in a national organization is valuable because, among other reasons, the field of chaplaincy requires certification from such an organization. On the other hand, rabbinic schools cherish their independence and are loath to take instruction from organizations.

As described by my late teacher, Rav Louis Bernstein (Challenge and Mission: The Emergence of the English Speaking Orthodox Rabbinate, pp. 18-20), the RCA interviewed leading rabbis for their input.

Rav Yitzchak Hutner, rosh yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, gave a rav u-manhig ordination. He allowed for a slight revision of the language to moreh hora’ah, someone who can decide matters of law, but would not change the language beyond that. He told the RCA that if this was not sufficient for the organization, his graduates would look elsewhere for certification (Bernstein, p. 19).

Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky and Rav Gedaliah Schorr, both of Torah Vo-Da’as, said that their yeshiva gives three levels of ordination — rav u-manhig[3]Their version is rav be-Yisrael, yoreh yoreh after another three years of study, and yadin yadin after further study. They consider any of these levels of ordination sufficient for serving in the rabbinate and to be recognized as rabbis (Bernstein, ibid.).

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the leading rabbinic figure at Yeshiva University said that ordination should use the term “semikhas Chakhamim” (ordination by the sages). With that language, rav u-manhig ordination is sufficient and should be accepted by the RCA for membership.

Quite astonishingly, after a decade of consideration, in 1954 the RCA decided to require for membership at least a yoreh yoreh ordination, thereby excluding from membership rabbis with a rav u-manhig ordination. Rabbi Bernstein writes that “[t]his was one of the very rare instances when the Rabbinical Council did not accept [Rav] Soloveitchik’s opinion” (p. 20).

The RCA’s membership standards have changed over the years but the exclusion of rabbis with rav u-manhig ordination remains. In contrast, the Rabbinical Alliance of America, which was started in the early 1940’s by Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz and others, accepts rabbis with rav u-manhig ordination.[4]I am an active member of both organizations. Personally, I know a rabbi with rav u-manhig ordination with great knowledge and a rabbi with yoreh yoreh ordination who cannot learn Gemara without an Artscroll translation and commentary. It all depends on the individual and the yeshiva he happens to attend.

Endnotes

Endnotes
1See Prof. Simcha Assaf, Be-Ohalei Ya’akov, p. 28ff; Prof. Mordechai Breuer, “Ha-Semikhah Ha-Ashkenazis” in Tziyon, no. 33, pp. 16-18
2Seridei Esh (Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1969), vol. 4 p. 133.
3Their version is rav be-Yisrael
4I am an active member of both organizations.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. It seems strange that the RCA would have yoreh yoreh be a determining factor in membership. As you correctly note, some rabbis with rav umanhig (or balleibattim with no title at all) are great scholars, and some with yoreh yoreh can barely learn at all. Moreover, it is surprising enough that the RCA would go against RYBS on this issue; but it is more surprising that an organization that prides itself on egalitarianism would maintain exclusive country-club-style barriers to entry.

    I suspect (and this is mere conjecture) that the members were aware that sometimes semichas were (are) given out by yeshivahs ad hoc, when one of their students need a job. But if so, even the requirement for yoreh yoreh would not avoid this problem, for such semichas are precisely the ones given in such cases.

    A more logical ticket of admission would be “practicing” status; that is, only actual rabbis or persons in full time Jewish education would be admitted. In this way the organization could still be a type of club, if that is what it wants, of people with similar life experiences or professional concerns. That’s understandable. It would keep out all the meddling doctors and lawyers and others who, the members might feel, rightly or wrongly, have nothing to contribute to a rabbinical group.

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